Terms we don’t need to define

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I thoroughly enjoyed Laptops and Looms. Brilliant to get outside of my head, outside of London, and thinking about bits of culture and technology that I don’t have a professional excuse to anymore.

But… there’s a thorny thing in the back of my head that I want to get down before I forget to.

We spent a bit of time on two conversations which we’d sort of covered in 2011 and don’t really help people draw anything from them. They helped get us to interesting places, but I think we could have skipped them.

The first is about contacting makers and manufacturers. It’s hard to build a network of trust in an industry you don’t know. Really hard. We talked about making a wiki or something similar collecting the names of people each of us have found to be brilliant… except that’s no more likely to happen this time than when that got suggested last time. Far too much community management for something as informal as Laptops and Looms.

If manufacture isn’t business critical then it’s extremely unlikely you’ll ever put the legwork in to really compare a stack of suppliers. You won’t need to. If it is, then talking to people trusted by other people you trust will only be a small part of the dialogue necessary to finding the right people.

I’m one of those people who finds it hard to speak to people who might make you feel stupid. Whether it’s a milliner or a printer or whatever. My self-confidence is fragile and I find that stuff difficult. I have huge sympathy for people in the same situation. I don’t need a new service to solve that, I just need to get better at it… and I might not until I really need to. And that’s okay.

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The second was on the merits of start-ups and start-up culture.

Imagine trying to solve that in twenty minutes of chat. Tip-toing and hand-wringing around the fact that a start-up – like any other kind of operating entity – is merely a mechanism. It is whatever the people running it want it to be, and while it can play a part in the culture that takes its name it doesn’t actually have to.

There’s a place for that kind of discussion, and that place is Medium.

The reason these conversations had room to happen is, basically, I’m not a great moderator. I get caught up in the chat and it’s only perspective that leads me to think ‘Oh, shame we didn’t use that time to talk about x instead.’ I’ve learned I don’t need to hear these conversations again. My inclination would be to have something at the next Laptops and Looms (2017 represent!) that effectively says ‘Folks, we’re not gonna solve this stuff… let’s talk about something else.’

So, to all attendees, sorry. If you got frustrated with that stuff blame me. If you had a lovely time then blame Greg and Russell – they did much more work than I did.

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Time to get out more

So, I’ve been thinking about something else that Laptops and Looms threw up for me.

At one point someone – I think it was Alice Taylor – remarked that we’re really good at talking about post-digital stuff to one another, but that it’s time to talk to other people. And while many people at the event seemed to think about that in the context of reaching out to manufacturers and discussing new ways of grokking production, my gut is that we should talk more to people totally uninvolved with the whole thing.

Here’s one good reason to do that. It was fascinating, hearing what a bunch of people might do if given the opportunity to turn old mills and factories built a hundred and fifty years ago into things that operate in the space between digital interfaces and traditional manufacture. But I’m already on-side with that argument. It’s time to convince people who’ll have to live with those products and live alongside the places that produce them.

Here’s another. Russell jokingly mentioned the ‘Google apprenticeship’ as a means of answering some of the questions floating around the room to do with aspiration, but my gut feeling is that you get people engaged with working in companies like Google when you demystify the whole process. ‘Making the internet happen’ shouldn’t be magic that someone else does anymore, it should be something we show off.

“The near future; you can invent it too.”

Boutiquiers

I’ve got a collection of choppy thoughts and notes after Laptops and Looms, but two themes stuck in my head. One was about scale and opportunity, the other about interaction and engagement.

The first bunch was triggered by Dan Hill’s talk, which plugged the decline of Britain’s manufacturing industry into Heaven 17 and ‘dark matter’ – the space occupied by governmental and corporate authority that offer us opportunities for exploration.

Dan described Napoleon I’s description of the English – “L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers!” – as a point of opportunity; if we, the English, are a nation of shopkeepers then that means we’re well-versed in setting out our stall and marketing ourselves.

But what’s the nature of the future market? The French translation of ‘shopkeepers’ into ’boutiquiers’ resonated. Jerry Della Femina had a few things to say about the boutique in From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbour

Most of the loose nuts in town work for the boutique agencies, which is the derogatory term used when the large agencies want to put down the small agencies. As far as I’m concerned, boutique advertising is the new advertising. - p.148

By definition, a boutique is small. The establishment says that boutiques are cutsie-poo, very superficial, very flowery. Their idea of what a boutique is comes from what their wives tell them about the cute little boutique they found on Madison Avenue. The guy running this boutique might be standing behind the counter without a shirt on, maybe just some beads, and in the mind of the establishment this is no good. So they sat around and tried to come up with the worst name they could call this new type of agency, and boutique was it…
But think about the boutique for a moment. It means that when you go into the boutique to buy something you’re going to be dealing with the man who owns the store and you’re going to get a lot more service and a lot more attention from him. Second of all, the item you buy from a boutique has to be perfect, otherwise you would go to another store. It’s as simple as that. – p.149

[Like a department store] the object of a boutique is also to sell, but with a maximum of personalized service into the bargain. – p.150

A nation, then, of agile operators, tailoring solutions to personal demand and producing the highest quality work possible. That’s a motivating image.

Of course, Femina’s definition comes from a place where his agency – a boutique agency – is under attack from larger operators. To which he has this to say.

The small agencies are going to win, no matter what they call us… The establishment can’t change, it can’t give the people anything different, it can’t make the turn. – p.150

We’ve seen it in music, digital start-ups and holiday packages and we’re seeing it in publishing; niche products that target the demands of smaller groups, finding homes among tighter-knit communities and making a product that fits the quality demands of that group, and now we’ll see it in the manufacture of things.